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Harris started his musical career as a drummer, converting to the ivories at the urging of Ellis Marsalis, father of jazz musicians Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason; Harris went on to accompany Wynton and a host of other young lions such as Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove, and Joshua Redman. His discovery of old Nat King Cole records around that time led him to add vocals to his repertoire and to develop his romantic style.

On the nine-track Portraiture, the Blues Period, pianist Michael Wolff sounds slightly more adventurous and less nimble than Harris, the mood more academic than romantic. The difference between Wolff's three original compositions and his handful of covers -- Miles Davis's "Jean Pierre," Sonny Rollins's "Sonnymoon for Two," Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," among others -- is glaring. As a composer Wolff is unafraid to throw a dissonant, unexpected chord into a musical space, or to allow melody lines to proceed in surprising directions. He gives himself a broad canvas on which to use fine musical brushstrokes while simultaneously stabbing and slashing the keys on terse harmonies.

The standards, however, lack such energy of invention. Wolff, who has played with Rollins, Cannonball Adderly, Tony Williams, and Christian McBride, seems restricted by the frameworks of others, hauling out versions of "On Green Dolphin Street" and Mingus's "Porkpie Hat" that seem more obligatory than inspired. While the pianist generally takes a sharp, lyrical approach to melodies on the standards, he seems less confident about venturing into unknown territory, resulting in a stilted, jagged sound. Even when his runs do surprise, they lack the punch and passion of his originals.

Some of Wolff's problems echo those found on many other recent jazz recordings: Artists seem to feel obliged to cover reliable standards, convinced that they can put a new stamp on a classic. But did Wolff really need to record, for example, "Round Midnight," by Monk? At this point, does anyone? Wolff's version plods, and the vocals from guest Kenny Rankin are strictly standard-issue.

Wolff, competently backed by John B. Williams (bass), Roy McCurdy (drums), and Ben Rodefer (guitar, on five tracks), is an agile musician with a unique approach to melody. With any luck his future recordings will feature original compositions that, unlike the standards on Portraiture, don't paint themselves into corners. (Fuel 2000, P.O. Box 46130, Los Angeles, CA 90046)

-- Larry Getlen

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John Floyd
Larry Getlen
Ben Greenman
Rafer Guzman
Michael Yockel